General History FAQs
Q. How long has there been a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras?
The first lighthouse, 90 ft tall, was built of sandstone. Originally, it used Argand-type reflectors and lamps, then 3 consecutive sets of Lewis-type reflectors and lamps, both of which used whale oil for fuel. The tower was ineffective and improvements were made in 1854. A first order Fresnel lens was installed, the height of the tower was extended (using brick) to 150 ft. to increase its range and the tower was painted white on the bottom and red on top. Shortly after the Civil War, it was judged to need replacing. It was demolished in 1871, after the current tower entered service. The ruins were visible until a 1980 storm swept them away.
The second (current) lighthouse was built in 1868-1870, and began operation on December 1, 1870. It cost approximately $167, 500 to build. The foundation was about 7-1/2 feet deep and consisted of 6 in. by 12 in. by 12 ft. crossed yellow pine timbers submerged in water, topped with granite boulders cemented together. The first order Fresnel lens was transferred to the current tower. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received the famous black and white stripe daymark pattern in 1873.
From 1936-50, due to the threat of erosion at the lighthouse, the beacon was placed on a 150 ft steel tower on the back road in Buxton. The 1870 lighthouse was turned over to the National Park Service in 1936. The erosion trend eased for awhile and, in 1950, the beacon was returned to the current lighthouse with an electric light and motor (the Fresnel lens had been damaged beyond repair). It was placed under a renewable 20 year Special Use Agreement with the Coast Guard.
At various times, light towers, lightships and buoys have also been in use at Cape Point and the far end of Diamond Shoals.
1950 – Today:
1967- The Diamond Shoals “Texas” Tower was established in 1967, 12 1/2 ESE of Cape Point. It was automated in 1977 but is no longer in use. It is 125 ft tall.
1972- The lighthouse had a new aero beacon installed with an 800,000 candlepower light with two 1000 watt light bulbs. The beacon rotates every 7.5 seconds.
1999- After years of debate and discussion, the Cape Hatteras Light Station (lighthouse, Double Keepers’ Quarters, Principal Keeper’s Quarters, oil house, and cisterns) was moved to the current location (1,500 feet from the shoreline). Everything, including the cisterns, were measured within millimeters of the spatial relationship, moved and reset in the same spatial relation. This was done to retain the National Register status for the historic light station district.
2000 – The Cape Hatteras lighthouse and associated buildings were reopened to the public.
2001 – The lighthouse closed when a 40 lb. piece of iron from the steps fell. During the next two years, the NPS conducted structural and capacity studies and sought funding to complete repairs to the stairway.
2002 – The lighthouse steps were repaired or replaced and the exterior of the lighthouse was painted.
2003 – The lighthouse was reopened to the public for climbing. New climbing load capacities were established and tickets were sold for specific time slots. A new bookstore/visitor center and covered pavilion were constructed as a part of the site improvement plan and a major road improvement project was completed on the main Park road.
Q. Has it been in continuous service since 1803?
Yes and no. There has been an established light tower of some kind in service since 1803. However, like most Southern lighthouses, the light was extinguished during the Civil War.
Q. Which agency was responsible for operating the lighthouse/Who maintains the lighthouse?
1802 to 1820 - Department of the Treasury, Commissioner of the Revenue
1820 to 1852 - Department of the Treasury, Fifth Auditor
1852-1903 - US Lighthouse Board, Department of the Treasury
1903-1910 - US Lighthouse Board, Department of Commerce and Labor
1910-1935 - Bureau of Lighthouses, Department of Commerce and Labor
1950 to present - US Coast Guard
In 1936, the 1870 lighthouse was turned over to the National Park Service. Currently, under a Special Use Agreement, the US Coast Guard maintains the beacon and the NPS is responsible for the building itself. Twice a year, all four light bulbs are replaced, and the mechanism is inspected and lubricated.
Q. How far was the ocean when the lighthouse was built?
The l870 lighthouse was built approximately 1,500 feet from the shoreline.
Q. How many storms has it survived?
All of them! Seriously, no one knows. Not all were recorded. About 150 hurricanes and countless nor'easters have affected the Outer Banks since 1548, since Europeans were here (who knows how many more before Europeans arrival). This would suggest about 40 hurricanes since the lighthouse was built. On April 17, 1879, lightning struck the tower; several months later, new shallow vertical cracks in the inner wall were ascribed to this by the keepers, but are now reliably attributed to thermal expansion of the structure - in the 1980s, studies of the cracks revealed movement with temperature variations. Later, the lighthouse also survived the Charleston earthquakes of Aug 31, 1886 (3 shocks up to 7.7 on the Richter Scale) and Sept 3, 1886 - felt in Chicago.
Q. How did the Diamond Shoals get their name?
It is not known where the actual name came from.
The shoals are not a continuous mass but are a series of three distinct shoals with channels between them. In 1948, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names designated the entire series as Diamond Shoals and assigned names to the individual shoals and sloughs (the channels between the shoals). The innermost shoal is Hatteras Shoals, the middle section is Inner Diamond Shoals and the outer section is Outer Diamond Shoals. As for the sloughs - Hatteras Slough runs between Hatteras Shoals and Inner Diamond Shoals. The one that runs between the Inner Diamond Shoal and Outer Diamond Shoal is called the Diamond Slough.
Q. How many lightships have there been at Diamond Shoals?
There were three lightships:
1st – 1824-1827 – destroyed by gale winds
2nd – 1897-1918 – the #69 Diamond was sunk by a German U-boat
3rd – 1919-1967 – this was replaced by the "Texas" tower
Did You Know?
Lightning whelks eat about one large clam per month. The whelk pries the clam open with its muscular foot, wedges the clam open with its shell, then eats the soft inside of the clam. Lightning whelk shells, which whorl to the left, wash up on the beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.